I'll never forget how I felt on the days leading up the CFP® exam. I remember the stress I felt and the confidence I lacked. Unfortunately, if you're anything like me, those nerves you're feeling won't go away until you finish the exam. On the bright side, if you're feeling worried or anxious right now, you should know that those feelings are completely normal, especially since your exam is right around the corner.
By now, although you may still have plenty to learn, most of the heavy lifting is done and now you're focused on polishing your skills. As far as what specific material to cover, I suggest you take a look at the 12-week crash course. Aside from the material itself though, it's time to start preparing your strategic game plan for the big day.
Polishing Your Game Plan
While there's no way to know which exact questions you will be tested on or in what order they will be presented, there are a handful of non-technical things you can prepare for to be in the best position for the exam. Aside from the mountains of study materials you've been engulfed in for several weeks now, here are the other things you should plan for before exam day:
A.M. Practice Questions: If your exam is scheduled to begin in the morning hours, then you'll want to make sure your brain is used to being 'awake' and ready to go in the morning. For people with crunched schedules who can only study in the evening time, this one may be a difficult concept to swallow. In the spirit of training for the right race though, I'd suggest preparing yourself for what the big day will feel like. In this case, that means practicing in the morning for your morning exam.
Know Your Route to the Exam: My boss gave me this idea and it was a game changer. A few days before the exam, he suggested I head to the testing facility, as if I were about to take the exam that day. I was able to learn how long the precise commute was, how much traffic there was, and which route I would take. Ultimately, I eliminated a few surprises and learned what time I needed to wake up at to get me there on time. On the actual exam day, my mind was fresh, not frazzled from traffic, and ready to begin.
Sleep & Wake Up Time: Since we know what time our exam will begin (and what time we need to be at the testing facility), we can figure out what our optimal time is to wake up in the morning. What time should you wake up? That depends on your life and schedule, but at a minimum, you should start waking up at the same time you will be waking up on test day. So, if you need to be at the exam center by 7:30am and you need to wake up at 6:00am to get there on-time, then 6:00am (or before) is your set time. Do this every day for 2-3 weeks leading up to the exam; this includes weekends (disclaimer: sorry to the recent college grads for making you wake up early on weekends).
Breakfast: For those who don't eat breakfast usually, I will suggest you break your no-breakfast rule for the weeks up until test day - calories & energy are crucial. I suggest eating the same (or relatively similar) meals every day up until the exam. The main goal is to make sure that if you do eat breakfast on test day, your body will be completely used to digesting whatever you fed it, avoiding any discomfort during the exam. Hunger is not a distraction you can afford.
Caffeine: I'm a big coffee drinker and consume it every morning, so I should mention it for the other addicts who read this blog. The same way you plan for your breakfast (as discussed in the previous bullet) is how you should plan for your caffeine intake. Whatever your routine is during the weeks leading up to the exam, make sure you do it on test day too. Also, plan to be done drinking your morning beverage by the time you get to the testing center. On my test day, a young man in a suit walked in with a fresh cup from Starbucks. Then, the exam center employees immediately made him throw it away. If he ever ends up reading this blog post, just know that this paragraph was written for you - R.I.P. Venti Pike roast.
Lunch: Pack Your Lunch: I'm sure there will be a Chipotle (AKA: old faithful lunch stop) across the street from the exam center, but you need to play this one safe and control the situation by bringing your own food. At the testing center, they usually have small lockers where you can store your belongings, including your lunch. Similar to the previous note about breakfast, you need to eat a lunch that your body is used to; meaning if you eat turkey sandwiches every day, don't pack Indian food - keep it consistent. The other benefit to bringing your own food is that you save (precious) time; you won't have to worry about finding a restaurant or waiting in any lines. The most reliable option is to rely on yourself.
Wild Card: Afternoon Caffeine: Admittedly, I drink a ton of caffeine; I drink coffee in morning, then get some more after lunch. My own caffeine levels are probably bad for my long-term health, but this piece isn't about overcoming addictions, it’s about passing one of the toughest certification exams out there. If you're someone who also consumes afternoon caffeine, similar to packing your lunch, you might want to pack extra caffeine as well. Personally, this one was tricky to think through, since I'm used to having access to a Keurig machine in my office (which I clearly wouldn't have on test day). So a couple weeks before the exam, I practiced drinking one of those Starbucks Double Shot canned drinks in the afternoon (to get my body used to it). I say "practiced" because I did notice it had a slightly different effect on me, compared to my usual afternoon dosage. Whatever your poison is, make sure you're used to it so you won't have any unfamiliar feelings during the exam.
Breaks: During the exam, you are allowed 1 short break (15 min) for each half of the exam; in total, you can take 2 breaks. Whether you need to use the restroom or not, these breaks are a great opportunity to give your brain a short rest, stretch your legs, and sip from cold water from a water fountain. I chose to take my breaks around the halfway mark of each half of the exam.
Ear plugs: At my testing center, they provided some headphone options, but I didn't use them. I brought my own ear plugs that I had been practicing with for the entire week leading up to the exam. Ear plugs aren't for everyone, so I’d recommend getting your own pair NOW and seeing if you like them or not. You don't want exam day to be the first time you practice wearing foreign objects in or around your ears.
- Try not to study on the day before the exam: This one is easier said than done, especially if you're genuinely feeling under-prepared. At this point, though, you've likely covered much more information than you realize. So save your mental energy if you can and try to be fresh for the marathon you'll be participating in the next day.
Basically, the over-arching theme is that you don't want any surprises on exam day, except for the exam questions themselves (which, hopefully, aren't too surprising for you by that point). Whether it be ear plugs, caffeine, or food, you should control what you can.
Preparing like the Greats
Floyd "Money" Mayweather is considered to be one of the greatest boxing athletes in the history of the sport. Within his nineteen year career, he fought in 26 world title fights, remained undefeated in all of them, in addition to ending several of those fights in the ever-elusive 'knockout' (meaning, he knocked his opponent down and they couldn't get up). In preparation for his big fights, like many other professional athletes, Mayweather trained relentlessly for months leading up to the big day. Each day was viewed as a new opportunity to improve his physical abilities, learn his opponent's strengths & weaknesses, and sharpen his strategic game plan.
I heard a story once that speaks to how well Mayweather prepared for his competitions. On the same evening as one his fights, Mayweather invited one of his friends to visit and hang out in the training and preparation rooms before the match started. But this was no ordinary sporting event - it was the Championship match. Viewership records were shattered and crowds across the country were flocking to their nearest sports bar to catch a glimpse of who would come out victorious. Needless to say, this was a high pressure event and pride was at stake.
When Mayweather's friend arrived, he naturally expected to see the entire team in intense focus, polishing each step of their fighter's game plan. Instead, what he saw was Mayweather hanging out in sweatpants playing video games.
To most people, this may sound strange and eccentric. But the reality is that, by this point, Mayweather's training was done. He knew that an extra 60 minutes of training right before competition wouldn't move the needle too much in either direction. So, instead, Mayweather focused on clearing his head and saving his energy for what really mattered.
With the CFP® exam, if you've made it this far, you've probably been training for months and are more prepared than you may be feeling right now. Hopefully, by this point, you've covered the material and are in great shape. From here, the rest is mental and confidence plays a huge role in how well you'll perform on test day. The only recipe for success on the CFP® exam is preparation, so focus on preparing better than anyone else and you'll be on your way to victory.